Submitted by Senator Mike Barrett and Representative Ken Gordon
Senator Mike Barrett (D-Lexington) and Representative Ken Gordon (D-Bedford), both of whom represent Bedford in the state legislature, joined their colleagues in passing landmark criminal justice reform legislation that will lead to a more equitable system that supports our youngest and most vulnerable residents, reduces recidivism, increases judicial discretion, and enhances public safety. The bill, An Act relative to criminal justice reform, includes many provisions championed by Barrett to address fines and fees that engulf criminal defendants, a problem he has highlighted in his own work. It also includes reforms led by Gordon that allow first-time offenders in some situations to avoid prosecution in a program called Restorative Justice.
The Legislature also passed an accompanying bill, Act implementing the joint recommendations of the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Review (H.4012), which is designed to complement the comprehensive criminal justice reform legislation. This bill allows individuals to earn early release by participating in recidivism-reduction programs.
“The compromise states that a defendant may not be incarcerated for failure to pay fees if paying would cause severe hardship,” said Senator Barrett. “People are guaranteed a right to a lawyer at ‘fine time’ hearings and defendants deemed indigent will have an associated $150 fee waived.”
Representative Gordon said, “this compromise legislation takes a measured approach to criminal justice, increasing the penalty for such offenses as trafficking in fentanyl and carfentanil, synthetic opioids that threaten our community while providing an avenue for people with low-level, non-violent drug offenses to get the help they need. It increases the penalties for serial offenders convicted of drunk driving (OUI), but eliminates mandatory-minimum sentences so that discretion can be restored to judges who preside in our courts.”
For the first time in Massachusetts history, this legislation would establish a process for expunging criminal records. Courts will now be able to expunge certain juvenile and young adult (18-21) records, and records in cases of fraud or where an offense is no longer a crime.
The Legislature has a longstanding legacy of supporting the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable children, particularly those facing trauma and adversity. Accordingly, this bill raises the minimum age of criminal responsibility from seven to twelve and decriminalizes a first offense misdemeanor if the punishment is a fine or imprisonment for not more than six months. It also establishes a Juvenile Justice Policy and Data Commission, which will make the state eligible for additional federal funding, and a Childhood Trauma Task Force to study and recommend gender responsive and trauma-informed approaches to treatment of youths in the juvenile justice system.
Additionally, this legislation reflects a balanced, modern approach to sentencing. It eliminates mandatory and statutory minimum sentences for many low-level, non-violent drug offenses. Further, it creates the nation’s strongest law for Carfentanil trafficking and strengthens the existing Fentanyl trafficking law, bolstering the Legislature’s multi-tiered approach to the opioid epidemic. The legislation also strengthens penalties for repeat offenders convicted of operating under the influence (OUI).
The legislation also requires district attorneys to create pre-arraignment diversion programs for military personnel, veterans, and individuals with addiction or mental health issues in order to combat the opioid epidemic and provide health care parity. The bill includes a jail diversion initiative originally sponsored by the late Senator Ken Donnelly and subsequently championed by Senator Barrett that would develop a Restoration Center in Middlesex County. The proposed center would support ongoing law enforcement diversionary efforts across the county while also expanding the community capacity for mental health and substance use treatment.
“The bill pushes measures to ensure the criminal justice system prioritizes rehabilitation,” said Senator Barrett, co-chair of House Committee on Oversight. Indigent counsel fee for juveniles will be eliminated, an issue on which Barrett has worked with Sen. William Brownsberger.
Barrett welcomed the provision as “a great start in the campaign to phase out the fee for all indigent defendants” and said he will continue to fight to ensure that everyone is able to access their constitutional right to a lawyer.”
“For years I have spoken up for Restorative Justice, a program advocated by Bedford Selectman Margot Fleischman and Police Chief Robert Bongiorno,” said Gordon. “The principles of this policy are included in this bill, so that young, first-time offenders can address allegations of wrongdoing with the alleged victims, if the victims are willing, without a record that will follow them for life.”
Further, the legislation includes updates to the Commonwealth’s pretrial system and enhances judicial discretion by requiring a judge to take a person’s financial resources into account when determining bail. Oftentimes, pretrial detainees who cannot afford bail are incarcerated before trial with no ability to work, take care of their families or access important community services. The bill also creates a pre-trial services unit to remind pre-trial detainees of upcoming court dates using modern messaging approaches and establishes a temporary bail commission to monitor the system and suggest further improvements.
“We made real progress in reforming our pretrial system,” said Senator Barrett. “While the bill codifies the SJC’s recent Brangan decision to help move our bail system away from a cash-based system, a comprehensive overhaul of our pretrial bail statute is still necessary to ensure that an individual is not held solely based on his or her ability to pay.”
Additional policy changes include: reduction of fees imposed on defendants; decriminalization of minor offenses; enhanced limits on solitary confinement; improvement of prison conditions; release of prisoners who are permanently incapacitated and pose no safety risk; and reformation of the criminal offender record information (CORI) system to help individuals secure gainful employment and housing.
The bill now goes to the Governor for his consideration.